Why I don’t release albums

Last Thursday I went to what was the final show at Dreamland and was able to get a copy of the cassette release of Chris Kincaid’s Overshot for String Quartet and Electronics (listen to excerpts of it below). This is something I recorded for Chris back in June of last year (as well as an earlier version for multiple cellos) which he used in sound installations. It’s now the latest of a growing catalogue of album releases on which I appear. I’m often asked why I don’t have any solo album releases or if I plans to do one. Usually I’ll respond that I have a few on the back-burner that I haven’t had the time to complete.

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Decline of Classical Music recordings during the 1930s

So we’re told that before the “Classical Music Crisis” that:

Classical broadcasting was profitable. So was classical recording. In the 1930s, the leading American record company, RCA, made half its money from classical music. NBC, the parent company of RCA, created an orchestra for Arturo Toscanini to conduct — hyping him as the greatest musician who ever lived — and aired its concerts first on radio and later on TV, with commercial sponsors. (Sandow 2013)

So the main claim here is that classical recording is profitable and to illustrate we’re given the example that in the 1930s RCA made half its money from classical music. However, In the Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound, Volume 1 we’re told this:

The U.S. national economy was at its lowest point in 1931 and 1932, giving RCA its only deficit years.

Between radio applications and jukebox sales, the record industry had enough business to survive the early years of the Depression. The 50,000 jukeboxes in operation in 1930 accounted for about half of the 6 million records sold in that year. (Hoffmann 2004, pg. 1157)

and

However, the boom years of the late 1920s were followed by a depression that was even deeper in the record business than in the general economy. Sound film and radio replaced records as a fashionable form of entertainment, and by the mid-thirties, record production had declined from the level of 1929 to, for example, one-tenth in the USA and one-sixth in Germany.

The depression caused a series of bankruptcies and mergers. In the USA there were only three active companies by the mid-193os, and in Europe the situation was almost the same. (Gronow 1983, pg. 64)

One-tenth of the production levels with bankruptcies and mergers in the mid-thirties from the late 1920s boom in the record industry isn’t a particularly profitable trend. By the end of the 1930s things did pick up for the recording companies but for the most part, recordings in general (much less classical recordings) weren’t particularly profitable during most of the Depression years.

Caruso-RCA-label

Then we turn to this:

During the 1930s popular records outsold Red Seals by a ratio of three to one (Hoffmann 2004, pg. 1157)

Red Seal Records was the Classical Music arm of the RCA Victor company. Maybe at some point classical recordings made up half of the revenue for RCA Records, but it didn’t happen in the 30s.  And even if it was half–half of 1/10th the revenue of the 1920s isn’t something to write home to mom about.

Very few recordings during any part of the early half of the 20th century sold many copies, much less classical recordings.  As Young and Young (2005) state:

Few serious compositions attracted strong public attention during the period, and the classical tradition suffered from both the competition of other musical formats and continuing economic constraints. For classical recordings, that situation translated as disastrous: by 1931, 500 copies constituted the average sales total for a classical disc… (Young and Young 2005, pg. 171)

Even big sellers like Caruso probably only moved a few hundred thousand copies because it was the sheer number of releases that drove the early recording industry not the number of units sold per release. Remember that the LP (“Long Play”) Record hadn’t become the norm yet so a release could simply be a single A side.  An A side with a B side would count as “two releases.”

Another less direct indicator of the record market is the number of new records issued annually. Although exact figures are difficult to come by, discographers have given us several methods by which new releases can be estimated, and we know, for instance, that the Gramophone Co. alone issued about 200,000 titles in the period extending from 1898 to 1920. If this figure appears unexpectedly large, it must be remembered that average sales were low. Reports of Caruso’s recordings selling millions of copies must be taken with a grain of salt, although it seems quite likely that some records did sell hundreds of thousands. However, record companies seem to have been quite satisfied with sales of a few thousand copies, and in order to open up new markets, sales of a few hundred may have been quite acceptable. (Gronow 1983, pg. 60)

Seems like the general attitude towards classical music hasn’t really changed much over the decades in the US and all the effort put into raising the “level of American musical literacy” is a perennial problem.

Americans have long embraced a love-hate relationship with classical music.  In a culture that espouses self-improvement, people see serious music as intrinsically superior to more popular forms. At the same time, these people favor the more accessible, “easier” popular formats for their own listening. This disingenuous situation prevailed throughout the 1930s, a time when a number of groups, both private and governmental, actively attempted to raise the level of American musical literacy. Despite the best of intentions, the efforts failed. Most people continued to buy and listen to pop songs, and then swing overwhelmed all other music in the latter half of the decade. (Young and Young 2005, pg. 171)

This is not to say that the new recording technology didn’t have a big impact on culture. It did. Mark Katz (1998) gives a wonderful overview of how phonographs affected culture, especially in regions where no live classical music organizations existed.  The phonograph was a great supplement (or substitute) to the Women’s Music Clubs which also became much more prominent in the early part of the 20th century (see Whitesitt’s “The Role of Women Impressarios in American Concert Life, 1871-1933” for a concise history).  Of course, the Federal Music Project issued hundreds of recordings which were given out free to radio stations all throughout the US during those Depression years.

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REFERENCES

Gronow, Pekka (1983) “The Record Industry: The Growth of a Mass Medium.” Popular Music. Vol. 3, Producers and Markets. Cambridge University Press: 53-75 <<http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/853094>> <<http://www.jstor.org/stable/853094>>

Hoffmann, Frank (2004) Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound. Volume 1. New York, NY: Routledge

Katz, Mark (1998) “Making America More Musical through the Phonograph, 1900-1930.” American Music, Vol. 16, No. 4, University of Illinois Press: 448-476 <<http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3052289>> <<http://www.jstor.org/stable/3052289>>

Sandow, Greg (2013) “Before the Crisis.” Sandow: Greg Sandow on the Future of Classical Music. September 17. <<http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2013/09/before-the-crisis.html>>

Whitesitt, Linda (1989) “The Role of Women Impressarios in American Concert Life, 1871-1933” American Music, Vol. 7, No. 2, University of Illinois Press: 159-180 <<http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3052201>> <<http://www.jstor.org/stable/3052201>>

Young, William H., Nancy K. Young (2005) Music of the Great Depression.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

Basil Poledouris: Conan the Barbarian

 

Banner for the world premiere recording of the complete Conan the Barbarian moveie score by Basil Poledouris

I’m kinda stoked about this – it looks like a special 2CD edition of Basil Poledouris‘ score to the film Conan the Barbarian has been recorded for Prometheus Records by James Fitzpatrick.  The original score was infamous for having scored 24 French Horns (yes, 24 French Horns) for the opening number of the score, Anvil of Crom.

 

I didn’t know much about the composer, but after reading the Wikipedia article about him, I was intrigued:

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Basil Poledouris credited two influences with guiding him towards music: the first was composer Miklós Rózsa, the second was his Greek Orthodox heritage. Poledouris was raised in the Church, and he used to sit in services enthralled with the choir’s sound.[2] At the age of seven, Poledouris began piano lessons, and after high school graduation, he enrolled at the University of Southern California to study both filmmaking and music. Several short films to which he contributed are still kept in the university’s archives.

I can definitely hear the Miklós Rózsa influence, but had never thought about the Greek Orthodox background.  After re-listening to some of the numbers from the score (and now that I have some understanding of musical traditions associated with the Eastern Church) I can hear that now too.

Here is the opening to the film, the aforementioned Anvil of Crom:

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20th Century Bulgarian Music for Cello Solo

20th Century Bulgarian Music for Cello Solo
20th Century Bulgarian Music for Cello Solo

One half of the pleasure of doing research at a more general level (e.g. “Solo Cello Music Repertoire” rather than “Cello Repertoire by Popper”) is finding gems you’d never think to come across. Earlier I found a full CD recording of 20th Century Bulgarian Music for Cello Solo. I’ve never heard of any of the composers, much less the compositions.

 

The other half of the pleasure is finding the scores to these works.


track listing:

 

1. Fantasia for Cello solo, Op. 15 by Petar Khristoskov
2. Sonata for Cello solo by Marin Goleminov
3. Kells by Georgi Arnaudov
4. Reflected Meditation by Milcho Leviev
5. Augusburg Polka for Cello by Milcho Leviev
6. Bis by Emil Tabakov
7. Sonata for Cello by Dimitar Tapkoff
8. Entrata e Capriccio for Cello by Simeon Pironkov
9. Rhapsodic Improvisation no 1 by Rumen Balyozov
10. Rhapsodic Improvisation no 2 by Rumen Balyozov
11. Sonata for Cello solo no 1, Op. 39 by Nikolai Stoikov